Pakistan is currently facing its worst natural disaster in history. Albeit prone to calamities, the country has never seen devastation on such a scale. Unlike tsunamis and earthquakes, floods do not create immediate headlines, as the death toll is relatively slow to mount. To date, 1,500 people have died and 20 million have been affected. The size of the affected population outnumbers the victims of all of the recent disasters combined – including the 2004 Asian tsunami, the 2005 earthquake in Pakistan, and the Haitian and Chilean earthquakes of 2010. To give you even more perspective, 20 million is equal to one-third of the UK's population or all of the inhabitants of the state of New York.
We watched as the world rushed to the rescue of these tsunami and earthquake victims, but the response to the floods in Pakistan has been altogether different. While donors pledged nearly $300 million after the 2005 Pakistan earthquake and $1 billion following the Haitian earthquake, in the first few weeks after the floods the UN has only received around $90 million of its $460 million appeal. So what has changed between then and now?
To begin with, the country's economy has become increasingly dependent on foreign aid because of its role in the fight against terror. A number of reasons can be cited for the sluggish international response, including a relatively low death toll, the slow pace of the floods compared to the dramatic event of a tsunami or earthquake, and a “global donor fatigue.” When you speak to people inside Pakistan, they blame the government for being late to respond. Citing poor governance and bad crisis management, they blame the government for not adequately gearing itself up to aid flood victims. Apart from the armed forces, no other government agency has been able to make an impact. Numerous inefficiencies and a lack of coordination between agencies have also been causes for concern, and there is a clear lack of trust. People do not trust the government or its agencies. Deposits into the prime minister's fund amount to 55 million Rupees, which is less than a quarter of the funds collected and spent by NGOs and individuals.
A leading philanthropist and financial executive claims that there are several reasons that the world isn't responding to Pakistan's woes. First, this is the fifth year running that Pakistan has been asking for funds: 2005 and 2006 for earthquake relief, 2007 to 2009 due to the war on terror and economic collapse, and now again for flood relief. Additionally, there is the perception that the rich and powerful in Pakistan are not doing their share, so why should the foreigners pick up their burden. There is also a lack of trust that the money will be utilized honestly and efficiently. This corruption and lack of transparency are the main reasons that Pakistanis themselves are trying to focus support on individual efforts rather than pooling resources with the authorities. The governing Pakistan People’s Party and the Pakistan Muslim League in opposition have pledged to constitute an independent commission which will oversee the disbursement of funds. This is a welcome move that will serve to improve public trust.
The international recognition of the floods has been insufficient thus far. An irate journalist suggested that countries in the West would only react and help Pakistan if they were told that Jamatud Dawa and the Taliban were doing a good job. Having said that, the responses from fellow Muslim countries have also been limited. Apart from $5 million from Kuwait and Turkey and a few aid planes from Saudi Arabia, no real help has arrived. Although a number of appeals have been launched, no pledges have been received from Muslim international organizations such as the Organization of the Islamic Conference.
Donor fatigue is the term being brandished about the most. This fatigue may be a consequence of the worldwide economic recession or the perception that Pakistan is supporting militants in the war against terror. If you look at the rehabilitation and reconstruction phase in war-torn Malakand, there have been tall claims of support from the Friends of Democratic Pakistan, but help is yet to arrive. The Pakistani government itself shares the blame for being slow to acknowledge the magnitude of this calamity, as even basic comparisons with other major disasters and official estimates of flood victims are coming too little and too late. Toned-down international coverage is also not helping to raise awareness across the globe to drum up support for the victims of this historical disaster. Unlike the tsunami, it’s not the holiday season, and most budgets are being spent on summer vacations.
Pakistan already faces an insurgency and a refugee crisis. Given that the authorities need to hold drills and inform people of what to do in the case of a major crisis, this is too much for any government to grapple with alone. With warnings of more surges and a heavier monsoon spell, the worst is far from over, and more agony is yet to come. Pakistan holds a place of significance in the international community and has made sacrifices to carry out the responsibilities inherent to this position. It is now the rest of the world’s turn to do more, and to do it now.
Osama Javaid is a broadcast journalist based in Pakistan and works as the News Editor for Dawn News.
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